21 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Open access to knowledge will boost Africa’s development

In December last year, The Economist published a special report titled “Africa rising”. The sub-heading of the story was very interesting. Reversing its decision a decade before to label Africa “the hopeless continent”, the magazine now called us “the hopeful continent”.

But was that correct? Isn’t Africa still at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index? Isn’t Africa’s research output still less than 1% of the global total?

Yes, these things are true.

But what is also true is that Africans are doing something about it. From Addis Ababa to Cape Town, Nairobi to Lagos, Africans “Are doin’ it for themselves” – to adapt the title of the 1980s hit by the Eurhythmics and Aretha Franklin.

Since October 2010, when Stellenbosch University became the first African higher education institution to sign the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, the number of signatories on the continent has grown to 28 – in just two years.

The Berlin Declaration dates from 2003 and was initiated by the Max Planck Society of Germany. It is regarded as a milestone of the open access movement.

It promotes unrestricted access to scientific knowledge and cultural heritage, and more than 400 institutions worldwide have already signed it.

In her keynote address at the recent Berlin 10 Open Access Conference at Stellenbosch University, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European commissioner for research, innovation and science, said “good science and good innovation should have no boundaries”.

“We need to share this knowledge, especially when we are faced with global challenges, such as climate change, clean energy or food and water security, which are so complex that no one country or company can provide the answers,” she added.

Open access can help Africa

Open access can help Africa to address its developmental challenges by moving the continent from the periphery of knowledge production to the centre. And the growth of open access on the continent signifies that Africa is ready to lead itself and its sciences deeper into the 21st century.

Wherever one goes on the continent, there is a tremendous enthusiasm for knowledge production and full participation in the global knowledge community.

Clearly, Africa has aspirations to grow its share in global knowledge production. And open access is an important tool for realising this aspiration. Knowledge production is important because it drives development, and open access accelerates that drive.

Manuel Castells has pointed out that in the current ‘global knowledge economy’, knowledge production and technological innovation have become “the most important productive forces”. And according to John Naisbitt, “the new source of power is not money in the hands of a few, but information in the hands of the many”.

Also speaking at Berlin 10 Derek Hanekom, South Africa’s minister of science and technology, cited the example of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – “one of the biggest science projects the world has ever seen, and Africa was selected to host it.

“Through the SKA, scientists from all over the world will collaborate in trying to unravel the mysteries of our universe. Information will need to be shared around the clock between Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. Open access literature will be key to the success of this project,” he said.

Clearly, times are changing, and along with it, the publishing landscape. In this time of flux, there is a window of opportunity for us to improve two things – particularly for Africa: access, and visibility.

Open access paves the way for those who need to participate more fully in the knowledge community. They do not have to pay subscription fees for scientific journals, which are frequently unaffordable to under-resourced institutions. And at the same time, open access increases the visibility of research coming from the developing world.

In this way, greater equity is achieved. If knowledge is the currency of our time, then open access amounts to the redistribution mechanism of that wealth – hence it can be regarded as hope-generating.

Stellenbosch initiatives

Stellenbosch University has adopted hope as its guiding academic concept. This is captured in our Hope Project. We follow a science-for-society approach, using knowledge production, transfer and application to address major societal challenges.

That is why open access is a perfect fit for us. We have made our research accessible to the world – particularly to the very communities from which the data come. And this is done for the sake of promoting human development and a more sustainable environment, which are the moral imperatives of our time.

Our first step was to establish an open access repository. It is called SUNScholar, and it can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. It is an electronic archive for the collection, preservation and distribution of a variety of research material, such as masters and doctoral theses, research articles and conference proceedings. It was built with open source software, using open internet standards.

Secondly, Stellenbosch University has established a comprehensive service for hosting and publishing open access academic journals online. It is called SUNJournals, and all titles on the platform are freely available to anyone via the internet. A total of 18 titles – most of which are accredited by South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training – have already joined.

The journals are published with the Open Journal Systems (OJS) open source software, developed by the Public Knowledge Project. Open access can increase a journal’s readership as well as its contribution to the public good on a global scale.

Thirdly, we have created an Open Access Fund to encourage the university’s researchers to publish in open access journals. Author fees for publishing in open access journals are subsidised, and researchers also receive a subsidy for publishing in regular journals when an additional fee is required to allow open access to published articles.

In addition, the fund covers the university’s membership fees with such open access publishers as BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science.

Libraries the world over are increasingly adopting the role of publisher. According to a report by Purdue University Libraries in the US, libraries have over the past five years begun to expand their role in the scholarly publishing value chain by offering a greater range of pre-publication and editorial support services.

We want Africa to be part of this global trend. That is why Stellenbosch’s Library and Information Service has developed two new open access platforms that will help us achieve this goal – the African Open Access Repository Initiative, and the African Open Access Journal Initiative.

The aim is to assist African higher education institutions to become independent digital academic publishers.

For African higher education institutions that do not currently have the technological capacity to do so, Stellenbosch will host their online collections and publish their online journals. We will also train their professional staff, transferring skills in the process so that our partners can work towards building and running their own systems.

For Africa, open access allows those who have been largely silent and invisible contributors to global research production to express themselves freely. May Africa’s voice be heard loud and clear.

* Professor H Russel Botman is the rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University and a vice-president of the Association of African Universities. This article is based on his inputs at the recently concluded Berlin 10 Open Access Conference hosted by Stellenbosch University. It was the first time that the event took place in Africa.

African signatories of the Berlin Declaration on Open Access
Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf)
Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt
Ifakara Health Institute, Tanzania
Institut Pasteur de Bangui, Central African Republic
Jimma University, Ethiopia
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana
Library and Information Association of South Africa
Makerere University, Uganda
Maseno University, Kenya
Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Uganda
National Institute of Oncology, Morocco
National University of Lesotho
National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe
Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Universidade Pedagógica Moçambique
Université de Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Université de Yaounde I, Cameroon
University of Cape Town, South Africa
University of the Free State, South Africa
University of Ghana
University of Johannesburg, South Africa
University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
University of Nairobi, Kenya
University of Pretoria, South Africa
University of Science Techniques and Technologies of Bamako, Mali
University of South Africa
University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
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